Self-initiated learning projects of the inmates of District of Columbia Department of Corrections

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


This study systematically examined and described the self-initiated learning projects of 20 inmates from the Central Facility of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. The research questions which guided this study were: (a) what are the characteristics of the learning projects; (b) as perceived by the inmates, what is the impact of the prison environment on self-initiated learning; and (c) what meaning does the experience of self-initiated learning have for the inmates both while incarcerated as well as after release?

The study design was naturalistic. The sample for this study was randomly selected from the target population by a random selection technique. The respondents in the sample were interviewed by the investigator who designed and used a 29 item semi-structured interview schedule. Other data collection methods included fieldnotes of the investigator's observations before, during, and after the interviews. The data were analyzed using Spradley’s (l980) ethnographic analysis technique consisting of domains, taxonomies, components, and themes.

The study yielded the following major findings or themes relevant to the three research questions. The vast majority of the self-initiated learning projects were growth and development with regard to employment, religion, academic education, and personal development. The main reason for beginning the learning projects was to improve the respondents' attitudes concerning their morals, beliefs, and values. The learning format used in the majority of the learning projects was oral communication. The learning projects were facilitated by the policies, practices, and procedures of the prison. The major problems encountered were the insensitivity of the inmates, inadequate study facilities, and limited resources. Finally, the major institutional and expected community benefits were the job skills acquired and the attitudinal changes concerning the respondents' past criminal involvement.

The study concluded the following: Self-initiated learning projects abound in prison as meaningful learning activities for the inmates which tend to supplement the institutionally sponsored programs. Se1f-initiated learning projects have benefit and value for inmates while they are incarcerated and an expected benefit and T value for inmates after they are released. Finally, self-initiated learning projects in the prison setting are not generally conducted in a positive and supportive environment. Implications for future research are also noted.



District of Columbia